A young man was sentenced Monday for the DUI-related crash that took the life of beloved teacher Gabriela Soto and her unborn child, Alba.
Usually loved ones of a victim hope that sentencing day will bring them sort of closure. But for the loved ones of Gabby Soto, it was clear there’s no resolution. Friends, family and prosecutors are shocked by the sentence given to the convicted DUI driver who could be out by spring.
Judge Kenneth Twisselman’s courtroom was a sea of green. Gabriela Soto’s loved ones wore her favorite color in her memory. It was the first and last chance her friends and family would get to address the court about their loss.
“There’s just so much to say and not enough words to say it. I could not in a few pages tell you the true impact of her and my niece’s death. I feel as though someone has severed my right arm and then asked me to explain how it feels,” said Gabby’s younger sister, Angelica Soto told the tearful courtroom.
Martin Lonza, principal of Independence High School in Wasco, told the judge that Gabby was the kind of teacher who truly made a difference in her student’s lives.
Then, Kevin Tallon, principal of Wasco High School addressed the court: “You could see her daily, impacting kids that were troubled in many cases. Kids that needed extra love and attention. She was willing to give them that.”
Gabby Soto was a longtime teacher that left her mark on hundreds of students. She was also mother to 3-year-old Ireli.
“Ireli and I were both at the accident scene as Gabby was extracted from her car and when she took her last breath,” said Gabby’s older sister, Blanca Soto.
In June 2017, Gabby was hit head-on in Shafter by 23-year-old John Sebastian Hernandez.
Prosecutors say at the time of the crash, he was high on marijuana.
Gabby was seven months pregnant with a daughter she’d named Alba. But because Hernandez had no prior DUIs, he was charged with manslaughter instead of murder, even though Gabby was far enough along in her pregnancy for the baby to be considered viable.
Under California manslaughter laws, a fetus, no matter how far along, is not considered a victim.
During the trial, Prosecutor Kim Richardson wasn’t allowed to tell jurors Gabby was pregnant. Monday was the only time baby Alba was allowed to be mentioned in court.
Blanca Soto told the court that within seconds, her life was turned upside down as she went from planning Gabby’s baby shower to planning Gabby’s and baby Alba’s funeral.
“There was much hope and love to share with baby Alba. It was very difficult for all of us to put the baby decorations and baby clothes away knowing there was no baby to celebrate,” said Blanca Soto, as Hernandez looked down at the ground.
The minimum Hernandez faced was no jail time, just probation. The maximum was four years behind bars.
When Hernandez’s defense attorney addressed the court, he asked the judge for probation so Hernandez could go to rehab.” He needs a live in facility much more than he needs incarceration for punishment,” said attorney J W Harrot.
Prosecutor Kim Richardson fired back, reminding the judge that Hernandez lied to officers about smoking marijuana at the scene of the crash.
Richardson pointed out that Hernandez has said he is willing to do anything to be reunited with his 2-year-old son, but she said he also admitted to smoking about five marijuana joints a day. She asserted that his statements don’t mirror his actions, and urged the judge to be mindful that Hernandez will say anything to get out of serving prison time.
Then, Hernandez, who’d previously stayed quiet and only communicated through his attorney, asked to address the court. He tearfully looked at the dozens of people in the audience and said: “I’d just like to apologize to the friends and family of Gabriela Soto and baby Alba Soto, and I know that this is difficult but I’d like to please ask for your forgiveness.”
Judge Twisselman then handed down a sentence that rocked most people in the courtroom: two years.
He explained that while Gabby being seven months pregnant was an aggravating factor, the fact that Hernandez is young with no criminal record is a mitigating factor in this case.
“I’m not happy with the sentencing today … Even though, unfortunately, the maximum would’ve been four years, I think it’s really disappointing in our state the laws for DUI drivers that kill other people is so lenient and it needs to be changed. That’s the bottom line,” said Prosecutor Kim Richardson.
Gabby’s family was also taken aback by the two year sentence, and noted Judge Twisselman’s comments they considered harsh to Angelica Soto when it was her turn to speak.
Angelica, Gabby’s sister, said Judge Twisselman told her not to be repetitive and told her he’d already read her statement, so for her to summarize it in front of the court. Angelica said she felt rushed and flustered, struggling to summarize the carefully crafted letter she’d prepared.
The family also felt Hernandez’s apology was forced. Since the June 2017 crash, they noted Hernandez never once attempted to apologize or take responsibility for his actions. Hernandez also apologized after prosecutor Kim Richardson pointed out to the court that Hernandez had never shown remorse.
With all the day’s disappointment, the family remains focused on Gabby’s living child, Ireli.
“He took her mom. He took so much from that baby and she doesn’t understand, she just asks where’s my mom and sister and what do we tell her? She doesn’t understand the concept of death or the concept of heaven, so we just tell her one day you’ll see her again and that’s the only thing the only comfort we can really bring to her,” said Angelica Soto.
John Hernandez was sentenced two years, but prosecutors say he only has to serve half of that, at one year. Taking that into account and factoring in good behavior and time served, Hernandez’s release date will be in about four months.
Family, friends, and prosecutors say they plan to fight to change California’s manslaughter laws to include a fetus as a victim.
Hernandez was convicted of one count of vehicular manslaughter last month.